Independent vs. Dependent Patent Claims

A patent application, as well as an issued patent, consists of multiple parts. These basic components may include drawings, a specification and an abstract.

However, it is the claims that are perhaps the most critical part of the patent.

What are patent claims? More specifically, what is the difference between an independent claim and a dependent claim?

Patent attorneys spend a great deal of their time learning to craft patent claims that will provide adequate protection for the subject invention. There is definitely an art to it, but it also is possible for the layperson to gain some insight into patent claims and why they are so important. In fact, it is a good idea for inventors and entrepreneurs to become familiar with patent claims so that they can help to approve proposed claims or suggest revisions that will help to clarify the protection sought in the disclosure.

What Are Patent Claims?

Non-provisional utility and design patent applications in the U.S. must contain at least one claim. Although design patents typically only include a single claim, it is not uncommon for utility patent applications to contain ten, 20 or even more claims.

The claims are an essential part of the patent. This is where the inventor spells out in detail what is being claimed by the invention and precisely what they want to protect.

In simpler terms, the claims define the scope of protection that a patent provides. This means that the claims may articulate both what the patent covers and what it does not.

Patent claims are written as a statement or description including technical facts and relying heavily on legal terminology to outline the invention.

Are Patent Claims Really that Important?

A seasoned patent attorney will spend a great deal of time working on the specification of the patent application, but he will put in even more effort when it comes to drafting the claims. This is because they are of primary importance to the issued patent.

The claims of an issued patent are what your competitors will look at when they are trying to determine what they can and cannot do if they want to create a competing product but don’t want to infringe your patent rights. The more specific your issued patent claims are, the harder it may be for your competitors to find a way to “design around” your rights.

Remember that a patent gives the patent owner or a licensee the exclusive right to make, sell, import, use or otherwise produce the technology covered in the patent. It is the claims that spell out exactly what is exclusive about this technology.

Patent claims similarly are crucial from a legal perspective. This is because it is the claims that will be examined by attorneys in a patent infringement lawsuit. As an example, the patent owner’s attorney will point out the specific scope of the patent claims and how the competitor’s product infringes these claims. It is the job of the accused infringer’s attorney to look for errors or holes in the issued patent claims that may demonstrate that the patent holder is not entitled to rights that are as broad as is being claimed.

If there are any errors in the issued patent claims, this can render the patent worthless. Accordingly, it is extremely important that patent claims are initially drafted with care and then amended with equal care during the process of obtaining a patent to ensure that no errors are introduced.

Independent and Dependent Claims

Most utility patents have a mixture of independent and dependent claims. The independent claims are those that stand on their own. In other words, they are not attached to the other claims. Accordingly, they do not refer to any of the other claims.

Independent claims follow a predictable format with a preamble and a list of all of the components that are necessary to define the invention.

It is common to see that the first claim in a patent is an independent claim. This claim sets a precedent with regard to the protection that the inventor is seeking. In general, independent claims are broader than dependent claims, with a view toward deterring infringers from finding a way to bypass the independent claim.

Three types of independent claims frequently are seen. These include a claim for an item, a claim for a method of making an item and a claim for a method of using an item.

Dependent claims rely either on an earlier independent or dependent claim. They are used to comparatively narrow the scope of the claims on which they depend. This type of claim additionally is used to further sharpen the focus on the protection that the inventor is seeking.

Some dependent claims even add nonessential characteristics or introduce trivial aspects and optional features that do not appear in the independent claim.

How Are Claims Written?

Claims are expressed in the patent as sentences, with each claim being a single sentence. The claims are consecutively numbered in ascending order.

This all sounds straightforward, but the claims actually can be pretty hard for a layperson to decipher. This is because claims must adhere to certain grammatical rules.

Accordingly, it generally is unwise for inventors or entrepreneurs to try to write patent claims. The rules are extremely tricky, and any mistakes can mean that any resulting patent is invalid.

Work with a Patent Attorney

The best way to ensure that any issued patent you own has a meaningful scope of protection is to work with a seasoned patent attorney like the professionals at Williams IP Law. When it’s time to protect your innovative technology, call Williams IP Law for competent and reliable drafting of patent claims.

Author: Jeff Williams

Jeff Williams is an experienced mechanical engineer and lawyer that consults closely with clients in a strait forward and clear manner.  He brings a particular set of strengths and unique perspectives to the firm.    
 Jeff received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Arizona State University in 2005.  He was an engineer for a number of years at a number of large corporations before pursuing his law degree.  He graduated from Texas A&M University School of Law (formerly Texas Wesleyan University School of Law) with a J.D. in 2010.  By combining his education and prior work experience into the field of intellectual property law, Jeff has developed key skills to fully assist clients.